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The Ecological Effects of Structural Flood Mitigation Works on Fish Habitats and Fish Communities in the Lower Clarence River System of South-Eastern Australia

D. A. Pollard and J. C. Hannan
Estuaries
Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 427-461
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1352675
Page Count: 35
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
The Ecological Effects of Structural Flood Mitigation Works on Fish Habitats and Fish Communities in the Lower Clarence River System of South-Eastern Australia
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Abstract

The effects of flood mitigation structures on the quality of estuarine and freshwater fish habitats in the lower Clarence River system of south-eastern Australia were investigated. Surrounding land use, fringing vegetation, overall level of habitat disturbance, distance from the sea, salinity, and water temperature were examined and compared between four sites on natural tributary streams, four sites on channelized flood mitigation drains gated at their mouths, and ten paired sites (five below and five above floodgates) on flood mitigation drains in this system, from mid 1988 to late 1990. Quantitative sampling of the fish fauna at each of these sites was conducted quarterly over this 2½-yr period. Juvenile fishes were sampled using netting enclosures together with application of the ichthyocide rotenone, while subadults and adults were sampled using multiple-panel gill nets. In general, fish habitats in the flood mitigation drains, and especially those above flood gates, had more intensive surrounding land uses, less natural native fringing vegetation and, overall, were more highly disturbed than those in the natural tributaries. Salinity at the various study sites was largely dependent on the pattern of seasonal (mainly summer and autumn) rainfall and distance upstream from the sea. Salinities usually differed only slightly between gated and ungated sites at similar distances from the sea, indicating that the floodgates were generally ineffective in preventing the penetration of saline river water into the drains immediately above them. These gates were, however, very effective in preventing the establishment of fringing mangrove vegetation in the drains above them. The main ecological effects of these flood mitigation works have thus been to generally degrade the overall quality of available fish habitat, particularly in terms of reductions in natural fringing vegetation (mangroves in the more estuarine-dominated areas and overhanging terrestrial trees in the more freshwater-dominated areas often being replaced by grasses and rushes), and to increase the intensity of surrounding land use (natural forest often being cleared and wetlands drained for cattle grazing and sugarcane growing), both of these factors contributing to increases in generalized aquatic habitat disturbance. Results from the study of the fish assemblages in these natural and man-altered habitats revealed the following general patterns. Highest fish species numbers and abundances occurred in the ungated natural tributaries and in drains downstream of floodgates. These habitats also contained the largest proportions of both commercial fish species and individuals as well as the majority of species and individuals with marine-estuarine affinities. Both total and commercial fish species numbers generally declined with decreasing salinity and increasing distance of the sampling sites from the sea. Even though saline waters from the main river system penetrated the majority of the floodgates during most of the study period, fish passage through these gates was found to be very restricted. Fish assemblages above such gates were generally dominated by primarily freshwater species, as compared with primarily saltwater (estuarine-marine) species below. The conversion of the great majority of small mangrove-fringed tributaries in the lower reaches of this river system into uniform floodgated drainage channels has thus resulted in the destruction of, and impeded fish access to, large areas of previously available estuarine fish nursery and feeding habitat. These drainage channels are now dominated by terrestrial-freshwater vegetation above where they are cut off from the main river channels by the floodgates, and the period of their construction has coincided with that of reported declines in fish catches in this river system. On the basis of the above findings, it is recommended that these floodgates be left fully open at all times except immediately prior to and during floods in the river system, thus facilitating the re-establishment of fringing mangrove vegetation along the banks of the artificial drains in the lower reaches, generally improving flushing and thus water quality in these drains, and allowing the establishment of primarily estuarine-marine fish communities, including more species of economic importance, in them.

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